Smartbuilding #9: Doug Melvin’s Conservatism | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

For quite some time, I’ve worked to formulate a thread, an argument, or an ideology about the Brewers’ front office. There is a seemingly simple fact about Brewers President and GM Doug Melvin that becomes more complex as it is unfolded: Melvin is loyal to his organizational guys. For some time, the Brewers — contrary to popular belief — have developed their own starting pitchers moreso than other National League teams. Even after trading Franchise Pitcher Yovani Gallardo prior to the 2015 season, Melvin’s rotation this year is one of his most homegrown yet, as the Milwaukee club doubles down on their right-handed pitching depth despite being burned by such a strategy in 2013. It’s easy to criticize Melvin for his loyalty at times, but that loyalty also arguably defines organizational strategies from player procurement and development to scouting hires. If there is one legacy that follows Melvin, it could arguably be a legacy of conservatism, a GM that fully morphed from waiver-wire and trading maverick to cook a development-and-free agency elixir.

Doug Melvin’s Transaction History
Using Baseball-Reference, one can easily find a player’s value, salary, and acquisition history in one chart. In order to analyze the development of Melvin’s transactions, I scoured each of his rosters, dividing his transactions into four “Major” categories and three “Minor” categories. The “Major” categories include Draft, Amateur Free Agency, Trades, and Free Agency; the “Minor” categories include Rule V Draft, Waiver Wire, and “Other” transactions (such as “Purchasing” a player, or “Conditional Agreements”).

By assembling these transactions into a chart, one will find a startling revelation: as the Brewers drafted and developed players over the last decade, Melvin almost entirely swapped his favored transactions from “trades” to “free agency.” This move incidentally corresponds to Owner Mark Attanasio‘s reported prevalence in free agency negotiations, as well as improved revenue sharing in the MLB; so, there are arguably “institutional” or “structural” factors that also impact these deals (nevermind the fact that as Melvin acquired more valuable players from his own farm system, he probably became more reluctant to trade from his own roster).

Bolded cells indicate that a certain number exceeds the average for that category. Ex: if the Brewers average 12 drafted players per season, but employed 14 drafted players in a certain year, that number will be in bold. The same goes for WAR totals.

WAR totals are averaged for 13 seasons, rather than per-transaction, so that all values are placed on the same scale.

Melvin Transactions (WAR) Draft AmFreeAgent Trade Free Agency Rule 5 Waivers Other
2003 4 (4.6) 2 (-0.1) 16 (3.0) 14 (6.9) 3 (-1.5) 3 (3.8)
2004 6 (9.2) 1 (1.0) 12 (2.8) 18 (5.4) 1 (-0.2) 2 (2.6)
2005 9 (12.3) 1 (0.4) 12 (11.6) 14 (7.7) 2 (5.3) 1 (0.2)*
2006 13 (6.4) 2 (-0.3) 20 (13.0) 9 (3.0) 4 (-0.2) 1 (0.2)#
2007 12 (23.5) 1 (-0.1) 17 (6.2) 6 (3.4) 3 (-0.5) 1 (0.1)#
2008 15 (20.8) 3 (0.0) 11 (11.8) 12 (8.9) 2 (-0.1) 1 (0.4)#
2009 13 (16.4) 2 (0.3) 6 (0.7) 19 (5.6) 2 (2.9) 2 (-0.1)#^
2010 14 (20.6) 1 (0.5) 6 (-1.7) 16 (4.1) 6 (1.5)
2011 14 (22.0) 8 (11.6) 18 (6.9) 5 (-0.1) 3 (-0.2)$@
2012 14 (16.0) 1 (0.8) 7 (6.7) 16 (2.6) 5 (0.5) 3 (3.2)$&!
2013 16 (10.6) 1 (-1.3) 6 (10.1) 14 (3.2) 2 (1.3) 1 (4.8)!
2014 13 (15.3) 1 (2.6) 5 (5.1) 15 (9.4) 1 (-0.8) 5 (-0.7)
2015 14 (0.0) 1 (0.8) 9 (8.6) 8 (0.2) 6 (-0.2)
AVG 12 (13.7) 1 (0.4) 10 (7.7) 14 (5.2) 0 (-0.2) 4 (1.2) 1 (1.2)
*Russell Branyan (conditional deal)
#Mike Rivera (purchased)
^David Weathers (purchased)
$Tim Dillard (Amateur Draft No Sign)
@Felipe Lopez & Brett Caroll (Purchased)
& Yorvit Torrealba (conditional deal)
! Norichika Aoki (purchased)

There are countless conclusions one can draw from this chart. Here are my major impressions from this chart:

  • In terms of the draft, Milwaukee received low value on rebuilding roster, which almost immediately improved as the now-famous “Dynasty Core” emerged on the scene.
  • However, notice that draft & development value peaks in 2011, and declines thereafter. Big fluctuations from Bill Hall, Ryan Braun, Jonathan Lucroy, Mike Fiers, Scooter Gennett, and even Khris Davis, among other players, results in fluctuations over the years. Injuries to players like Ben Sheets, Tyler Thornburg, and Rickie Weeks, among others,  also outline the difficulties of sticking with an amateur draft core.
  • While it is a truism that teams like Milwaukee need to rely on the draft to build great clubs, that truism only goes so far, as a discerning eye must also know when not to extend a player (see Ryan Braun’s additional extension, or arguably Bill Hall and Rickie Weeks’s deals as examples of this). That said, even the “jumpy” fluctuations from the 2005-2011 draft cores provide solid overall value for the club; in fact, the draft is easily the most valuable aspect of the Brewers’ roster during nine of Melvin’s seasons.
  • The club has absolutely failed to maximize potential value from Amateur Free Agency signings, which includes International Players. Alcides Escobar and Wily Peralta pretty much exhaust the roster value provided by foreign amateur free agency signings. In this case, the development of the Brewers’ Dominican Academy could not be more welcome.
  • Despite receiving significantly more value per season, Melvin has almost completely swapped “trading” for “free agency” as his largest source of external players. Notably, only two seasons worth of free agency moves (2008 and 2014) surpassed Melvin’s average per-season performance on trades. The culprits for this were largely Aramis Ramirez, Kyle Lohse, Zach Duke, Matt Garza, and Francisco Rodriguez in 2014, and Mike Cameron, Gabe Kapler, Jason Kendall, and Russell Branyan in 2008.
  • It should be noted that even as Melvin has largely abandoned trading by volume, his trades still regularly return greater-than-average value (especially in 2011, 2013, and 2015). One might speculate that as the Brewers improved, Melvin could simply spend his time looking for the most valuable trades to improve the club, rather than using the trade as a major source of talent procurement (which was the case when the Brewers’ draft core was still developing, early in Melvin’s tenure).
  • Even though Melvin averages only five waiver or “other” transactions per season, some of those moves are his best, and most interesting. It is arguable that the acquisition of Norichika Aoki was completely accidental in some sense, but the Brewers bid on his services and won, creating better value with that move than free agency or amateur free agency in both 2012 and 2013. The waiver acquisitions of Brady Clark, Scott Podsednik, Todd Coffey, Casey McGehee, and Marco Estrada also paid dividends for Melvin.
  • Specifically, Melvin’s 2003 waiver moves out-performed five years of free agency, his 2005 waiver claims came close to, or out-performed eight years of free agency, and even 2004 and 2009 came close to, or out-performed, four years of free agency. Prorated per yearly transaction, Melvin’s waiver claims are nearly as valuable as his free agency moves.

Summaries and Strategies
From these critiques and summaries, there are some interesting points that one can make about Melvin’s contending clubs. While contending, Melvin seemed to be less willing, or had less of a necessity, to try and find a Scott Podsednik on the waiver wires; with his recent pitching rotations, one can directly compare roster moves by division rivals like Pittsburgh or Chicago to Melvin’s strategies. The Brewers’ rotation is not populated by value-finds like Edinson Volquez, Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel, or Vance Worley (or even Francisco Liriano). It is worth pointing out that contending clubs do not have to shy away from finding low-cost, potentially high-reward options to build their rotations. Granted, Melvin’s bullpens have regularly featured solid value players, most recently in the form of Zach Duke, Michael Blazek, and Jeremy Jeffress (among others), and the trade involving Aoki and Will Smith was about as solid a move as one could find for one year of roster control for a “niche”-skillset outfielder.

Despite these solid moves, there remains a sense that Melvin has been partially burned by his penchant for staying with his own developed players, and definitely burned by his penchant to use free agency instead of other avenues to procure “external” talent. Basically, one can argue that the Brewers operate more along the lines of a “traditional” big market club, instead of the scrappy low-revenue team that sought every possible avenue for talent during rebuilding. This may simply be a case of changing sensibilities as the club’s fortunes improved: when you get a raise at work, maybe you shy away from finding every delicious rendition of rice and beans on a nightly basis, instead opting to cook up some robust veggie enchiladas or steak tacos.

What is disappointing in Melvin’s case is that he has proven himself to be quite good at sniffing out solid, low-cost deals, which leads one to ask why that strategy cannot correspond to a “contending” mentality. Perhaps the Brewers front office does not trust that winning alone will sell tickets, and they want that star-power and a familiar core to keep fans in the seats; perhaps the influx of additional revenue is too tempting to turn down (of course, one can argue that a lower-cost MLB roster could allow the Brewers to actively apply their revenue in International Markets and the draft).

Overall, I think it is clear that Melvin is a solid GM for the Brewers. He helped guide the club through one of the most successful decades in the National League, even if that decade did not see great playoff success correspond to the wins on the field. In recent reflection, even Melvin himself admitted that perhaps the club aimed for the “middle of the road” too frequently, which impaired their ability to truly reach their desired heights of contending baseball. I do not mean this post as an overall condemnation of Melvin’s tenure, but rather an investigation of roster-building strategies for the GM.

Ultimately, I believe that the development-plus-free-agency thread that defines recent Brewers teams will not only leave Brewers fans clamoring for a rebuild, but also a roster-building approach that is more flexible and outside-the-box. In this case, moves like the Aoki contract bid, or the Wei-Chung Wang selection are absolutely welcome, but far too rare for the Brewers front office. It is time for the team to become less reluctant to trade their own players in order to maximize value, and use more external sources to procure talent.

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